James Arthur, Joan Nordell Fellow '11      

IMPROVING ON SILENCE: Thoughts on Listening
at the Woodberry Poetry Room

by James Arthur, Joan Nordell Fellow ‘11

Rain is drumming into the Harvard Yard, and I can hear students running to take cover from the downpour, but I’m dry, in the cozy Woodberry Poetry Room on the third floor of the Lamont Library. I have a cassette player in front of me, and sturdy headphones around my ears. I’m listening to a reading by a young X.J. Kennedy, recorded at Harvard University in 1965. After some applause and a clatter of chairs, Kennedy takes the stage.

“Is there any reason why I’m supposed to talk into this microphone?” he asks in a gentle, sonorous voice.

I can’t make out the reply, but after a second, Kennedy says, “Oh, you’re taping it! Oh. Okay, well then, I will. —Can you hear me in the back of the room, you real people, and not the invisible tape audience?”

I’ve been listening to poetry recordings for the past two weeks, thanks to the generous support of a Joan Nordell Fellowship, and up until this point it’s never really occurred to me that from the perspective of the recorded poet, I’m a hypothetical entity: an unreal person belonging to an invisible audience, 30, 40, or 50 years in the future. Sometimes I feel that the recorded poet is sitting close by, maybe directly across the table, speaking only to me.

But then, that’s very often the compact between poets and their readers, or listeners; the poet articulates his or her small, singular frame of reference, without knowing whether anyone is paying attention … and if the poet gets it just right, a few people may feel as though the poet is speaking their own half-realized thoughts. Every few minutes, I stop the tape and write down a phrase, stanza, or line that I know I’ll want to revisit.

One line I’ve written down is by the Australian poet Les Murray, reading with Vincent Buckley and David Malouf at the Guggenheim Museum in 1980: “I will improve my silence, and listen to lives.” HOLLIS: 001647422

Day by day, the recordings are teaching me how to listen: quietly, in the hope of discerning something, without the intent to discern anything in particular. In a sweeping preface to a 1966 reading by W. H. Auden, William Meredith says,

[The poet’s] primary job is simply to be amazed at the world as it is, and at times, at the shame and wonder of its denizens, including himself. He acquires humanity the way certain saints acquire birds, and beggars acquire lice: as an attribute of being what he is. But he remains a unique human being, not, except by accident, average in anything, and his testimony is valuable because no one else could have seen what he saw. His authority is his wholly uniqueness brought to bear on humanity in such a way as to reveal the heroism of man’s deliberate, odd, lovely condition of solitude.

NOTE: This Academy of American Poets recording is not yet digitized, but is available for listening at the Woodberry Poetry Room. HOLLIS: 001623176

Surely this is true. Even when a poem addresses itself to many people, it exalts the individual, because it is one person’s testimony: a study not, perhaps, of the world as it is, but of the world as it seemed to one person, at one time. In an undated dialogue with Stanley Kunitz, Auden remarks that in a world full of noise and “impersonal pressures,” the best way to be heard is to speak quietly. HOLLIS: 001623428

By the time I leave for the night and start walking east toward the B&B where my wife and I are staying, the rain has dried up and Quincy Street is bustling with strollers, bicycles, and excited conversation. It feels good to be outside on a warm evening, moving among other people, as a person, part of the small or large invisible audience for poetry.

I’m grateful to have spent another day listening to the voices kept alive in the Woodberry’s magnificent audio archive, and I’m looking forward to coming back.

James Arthur, Joan Nordell Fellow 2011